The American Beauty
album is infused with sadness. Jerry Garcia's mother was still seriously injured and her still fate uncertain following an automotive accident, while Phil Lesh was still grieving his father's passing. The melancholic aura comes through in "Candyman" as much as any other song on the album.
The effect of the melodic sadness on the song's context is interesting, to say the least. It makes everything about the candyman character in the song seem sympathetic, when the lyrics suggest that he is anything but. Dead lyricist Robert Hunter said he certainly didn't resonate with the character's penchant for violence (more on that below).The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang
defines the term "candyman" primarily as a drug dealer and secondarily as a man who is lucky in general and lucky with women in particular. The latter version seems to fit better with the song, as the character announces his arrival to all the women in town and tells them they ought to open their windows (presumably to let him in).
David Dodd at the Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics
ties the inspiration directly to the very particular candyman that appears in "Candy Man Blues" by Mississippi John Hurt, the lyrics of which would be risqué even on today's radio stations.Well all you ladies gather 'round
That good sweet candy man's in town
It's the candy man
It's the candy man
He likes a stick of candy just nine-inch long
He sells as fast a hog can chew his corn
Where the Dead's candyman differs from Hurt's candyman is that he seems out for blood as much as womanizing. He's not a nice guy, but you'd never guess that from the sweet harmonizing of the singing. The song's another outlaw ballad, like "Friend of the Devil
," but the central character is noticeably more violent.
While there's no evidence to suggest that Hunter was getting at anything too deep with the song, "Candyman" does provide an interesting perspective on the contradictions of the 1960s counterculture. Mixed in with all the peaceniks and flowers were hard-drug pushers, violent revolutionaries, and common criminals. By 1970, this stew had long since become so mixed-up that its attendant parts could no longer be cleanly extracted from each other. The fact that American Beauty
came out in the midst of the Manson Family "hippie cult killings" trial says just about all that needs to be said about the complicated reality that had arisen out of the 1960s counterculture.
Beyond all that, though, the outlaw song that romanticizes criminality is a long-held and cherished tradition in American music.